My Faith

Posts tagged with "Religious"

These posts are related to my faith. As it says in the "about" section of this website, I am a disciple of Christ and a Christian Scientist.

Mirrors and Light

Just the other day I got to watch a video about a deep-sea creature called the "mimic octopus." It was a fascinating display of how this animal can take on the likeness of many other, different animals. It's gotten me thinking about how we tend to do the same thing. At the beginning of the Bible, it says how God created mankind in His own image and likeness. And later on, St. James uses the imagery of a mirror as an analogy to explain what our natural condition is like. All of this can be summed up with one simple statement: we were built to reflect.

From the time we're children, we are constantly watching others, mimicking and imitating them, and incorporating the new behaviors we see acted out by others into our own ever-growing repetoire. Children learn entire complex languages this way -- at least in part -- and then continue to develop their abilities through further mimicry and repetition. And there's that old adage, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

But there comes a point when you really need to stop watching others so much, and start doing things yourself. I say this because I've definitely been guilty of the former! In fact, I think most people have. It's something that we often have to learn to grow out of doing so much. Too much focus on watching others leaves us with less time in the day to really be ourselves; it tends to atrophy creativity. And it often comes hand-in-hand with the belief that we just don't matter. But nothing could be further from the truth!

Examples of "too much watching, not enough doing" are in behaviors like watching too much television, compulsively reading gossip columns, obsessing over politics, fantasizing and daydreaming, and pornography. Activities like that mistake consumption for real reflection. Those activities consume without creating anything meaningful. A good litmus test to tell if an activity is really "bad" is whether it leaves you with a mental or spiritual hangover. Honest activities never do. Honest, productive engagements inspire and uplift.

There was an interesting article in the New York Times about politics last October titled, I'm Right! (For Some Reason). The article examined the effectiveness of political "attack" advertisements, and how readily people will rally behind an attack ad against the politician they don't like. But when the same people were asked to explain policy ideas themselves, thereby putting themselves in the shoes of a politician, suddenly everyone became a lot more moderate. It's a lot easier for people to "attack" politicians when they don't feel any accountability for the process themselves -- when they're just passive observers. But if they are forced to think about how to create policy that will impact themselves, their neighbors, and even their opponents, often they become a lot more open to other ideas.

This highlights the importance of being active do-ers rather than just passive watchers. If too much focus on watching others tends to erode moral sensibility, then the opposite must be true, that a focus on being, living, doing actually strengthens self-esteem and values. In the Bible, Jesus sometimes used "light" as a metaphor for ones individuality, like when he said, "let your light so shine before men" or "no one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but on a lamp stand -- then its light shines on everyone in the house."

When we're actively filling our time with productive things we can be doing, that is letting our light shine. Then we become more focused on reflecting God rather than just reflecting others. That is the right kind of reflection, which brings with it a sense of freedom, goodness, and satisfaction.

How have you risen to start doing more than watching? How have you gotten over fears that your unique "light" somehow wasn't good enough? And how have you encouraged others to move away from the wall and start dancing, to take that candle out from under the basket and share it with the whole house? Please share your examples in the comments.

Have you been baptized today?

To most people, I think that question seems like a pretty straight-forward, yes or no sort of thing. Either you have or you haven't. Baptism is a central and vital part of a lot of Christian denominations. Some believe that a person becomes a "child of God" once baptized through an ordained member of clergy. Others have baptism later in life, a process that inevitably comes with fellowship and acceptance into a community. And some adore the cultural value of a water baptism, with family members coming together in harmony for a big celebration. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with any of these traditions. They are beautiful and sacred and very dear to many. But I want to talk about a different aspect of baptism than just the surface-level (pun intended) submergence into water. I want to talk about what actually goes on in a person's head, in a person's heart, beneath the surface and all appearances.

I'm submerged in water -- in some degree -- each and every day. But do I call that act of submerging myself in water every morning a "baptism"? Well of course not. I call that a shower. So what, then, distinguishes a baptism from a bath?

Also, is there more than one kind of baptism? The Bible uses the words baptize, baptized, and baptism a total of 80 times, exclusively in the New Testament. The eponymous John the Baptist practiced what's referred to as the "baptism of repentance" in the gospels, as a way of paving the way for Christ. But he also spoke of different types of baptism -- as did Jesus -- baptizing with the Holy Ghost, with fire, and with Spirit. Which raises another question: does baptism happen more than just once?

When people came to John the Baptist who were insincere, he detected that and told them to leave and come back when they could prove their sincerity through how they were living their lives. So I think this hints at the fact that baptism is more than just a shower; it's related to how you live your life. And while the baptism of repentance is a very important one, I actually want to table that one from discussion today and focus more on what's called the "baptism of the Holy Ghost."

In an article titled "Pond and Purpose," the Rev. Mary Baker Eddy talks about three different types of baptism and the different states of mind that they correspond to. Here's a little bit of what she has to say.

"The baptism of the Holy Ghost is the spirit of Truth cleansing from all sin; giving ... new motives, new purposes, new affections, all pointing upward. This mental condition settles into strength, freedom, deep-toned faith in God; and a marked loss of faith in evil... It develops individual capacity, increases the intellectual activities, and so quickens moral sensibility...

By purifying human thought, this state of mind permeates with increased harmony all the minutiae of human affairs. It brings with it wonderful foresight, wisdom, and power; it unselfs ... purpose, gives steadiness to resolve, and success to endeavor."

Fresh motives, deep-toned faith in God, success in endeavor... sign me up! I think this is really key -- discussing the states of mind a person experiences. Because regardless of whether you believe that water has to be blessed by a priest, or if you have to recite a specific set of words, or whatever your specific belief, wouldn't you agree that your state of mind and how you subsequently live you life is central?

Have you ever had a moment where you felt so inspired, so energized, like you had a million different things you wanted to do and you couldn't wait to get started? Perhaps someone who's just landed a dream job might be feeling that way, like they can't wait to get to work. Or perhaps someone who's just learned something brand new in school that they really enjoy and can't wait to show off. All these states of mind, where a person is feeling like they've unlocked whatever it is they were made to do -- whatever it is God has called them to do -- corresponds to the "baptism of the Holy Ghost," in some degree.

The simple fact is that water alone does little to inspire a person. It is what's behind it all -- the motives, ambitions, desires, and so on -- that really matters. In the 8th chapter of Acts, there's a story about a rich eunuch who's traveling on a caravan to Jerusalem. Along the way, he encounters Philip, a young Christian disciple, who shows him something he's never seen before. Immediately after being taught, the eunuch desperately asks to be baptized -- he wants to get things started as soon as possible! That encounter ends with the eunuch going on his way, "rejoicing." Then in the 10th chapter of Acts, the apostle Peter -- for the very first time -- welcomes outsiders (non-Jews) into his church and baptizes them. They were "astonished" and overjoyed, and celebrated with him for more than a week straight.

That astonishment, that rejoicing, that state of mind is something that we can cultivate each and every day. That's the state of mind that sees freedom, sees possibility, sees opportunity. That's the state of mind that knows you were made with a purpose and can't wait to dive into really living that purpose. And daily cultivation of that mentality is so much more important than just taking a shower. (Though, please do remember to shower!) Seen in this light, we can also look for ways that we can baptize others, daily. By that I mean we can inspire people, help them unlock their own talents and abilities, and find their own passion in life.

So I ask again: have you been baptized today?

Fear and Family

Last week I wrote two blog posts about some of hazards of political discourse. Specifically, I named three hazards, but then only wrote two posts (until now). I confess that I was having a hard time trying to come up with some meaningful content to write for the last point, which is why this post is so delayed. But I think I finally have something.

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, I have observed "intense fear" expressed in the words I read in friends' Facebook posts, relating to politics. There's fear that a politician has a secret, evil agenda which surely means the end for America and all we hold dear. There's fear that a whole nation (or, conveniently, those in it who don't agree with you) have been "brainwashed" or hypnotized into apathy and subjection when they should be protesting. And ultimately, there's the fear that you are powerless to do anything.

Fear never has been and never will be a very productive activity. Nor is any reaction that is ultimately rooted in fear. However, it's important to understand just how challenging it can be for any of us to face our fears and overcome them. An unqualified, "Fear Not!" is often easier said than done.

I still remember when I was about 10 years old, my family and I went to Six Flags Great America. For those of you unfamiliar, Six Flags is an immensely popular theme park, filled with roller coasters, carnival rides, and obnoxiously expensive trinkets. That year was the first year I ever rode a roller coaster. I had been to Six Flags prior, but up until that point I had only ventured as far as "Bugs Bunny Land," the subset of the park specifically geared toward very young children. This was the year I was finally too tall for that section of park, and so now it was time to start thinking about roller coasters.

Except I didn't want to.

Roller coasters were SCARY. It seems so absurd to me now, and in fact I don't even remember the feelings of fear -- I only remember the details that I was very frightened of them at the time. So in a very clever ploy, my uncle made me a deal. He said that if I would go with them on the "Whizzer," which was the smallest and most tame coaster in the park, he would give me a dollar. After a bit of a struggle, I eventually conceded. The ride up that first hill seemed very frightening, but once we got going, I had a blast. And I wanted to ride it again! Hoping he could inspire a little more confidence, he then offered me $2 if I would ride on the "American Eagle" -- a wooden coaster that was definitely bigger than the Whizzer. He could not, however, get me to do that. Not even for $2.

Years later, I've now been on every single coaster in the park more times than I can count, and sometimes backwards. I don't hang onto anything any more; I let my arms dangle freely in the air. I can't get enough of the fast-paced coasters. The idea that I could ever be afraid of those seems so ridiculous. But try telling that to my 10 year old self!

Human beings will always be afraid of something new. It's very much a "human" condition. They will fight tooth and nail to resist thinking about new ideas, or even new presentations of old ideas. This isn't to say that all new ideas are good. But the point I stress is that fear is a phenomenon that every person has to face down in one form or another. So while someone else is dealing with fear (or even when fear is dealing with them), the choice we have to make is how we treat each other along the way. Questions to ask yourself include: how do I love someone that I disagree with, in a meaningful way? How can I bring grace into an argument?

Really removing fear usually requires more of a personal touch, a consistent, patient guiding that can take a lot of time and effort. Platitudes and arguments can never seem to do the trick. It requires the gentle nudging of an aunt or uncle, encouraging you to try new things, but also not chastising you when you're not ready. So in our political discussions with each other, even when feelings seem to run high, remember that ultimately we are one family. And even if that family tends to be rather dysfunctional at times, you are never helpless when it comes to your immediate environment.

Politics and Pedestals

Yesterday I wrote about three qualities that I've observed frequently on display in the political discussions we see going on around us. Today I want to address the second of those three, namely "idol worship." I have friends who are Democrats, and friends who are Republicans. During yesterday's presidential inauguration, there was a post circulating about the President, which quoted a line from Scripture:

Who knows whether you are come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

This was, effectively, a declaration that the President has been appointed by God to fix all of the problems the United States is facing (and perhaps more). On the other hand, I've also seen plenty of posts circulating, ever since December, that have drawn a direct comparison between the President and Adolph Hitler, in fulfillment of Godwin's law.

I disagree with both positions. First of all, to compare any U.S. President to Adolph Hitler is not only outlandish, but is just plain juvenile. Obama hasn't committed genocide, nor has Bush, nor has Clinton, and so on. That kind of comparison is immature, reactionary, and has no place in any educated discussion. That is sheer depravity, the lowest state of mortal thought. But on the other hand, to treat the President, or another politician, as some kind of holy Messiah sent from God to finally fix all of humanity's woes isn't really much better. There was only one promised Messiah, and he's already left his mark.

I prefer a more sober approach when evaluating politicans, one that doesn't so easily get sucked up into the pomp and circumstance of the moment, nor get dragged down into the hypnotic fears and conspiracy theories. Is the President a promised Messiah? No. Is the President Adolph Hitler? No. The President is simply a man -- an inherently good man -- who is trying to do his best, to the best of his ability. And while I'll probably never agree with every policy that a given president makes, I know that he (and other presidents) still needs my support, my love, and my prayers. He needs yours, too. I try to approach thinking about politicans from the perspective that asks, "what would I do if I were in that position?" This is the Golden Rule.

Jesus gave us a helpful hint in how to view politicians in their correct light, when he spoke with Pontius Pilate just before the crucifixion. Pilate, a high-ranking official in the Roman empire -- who had undoubtedly worked long and hard to earn his position -- asked Jesus, "don't you realize that I have the power to crucify you, or to let you go?" Jesus responed, "you would have no power at all, except it were given to you from God."

This shows Jesus' acknowledgement that Pilate was in his position because God had put him there. But he places no emphasis, whatsoever, on Pilate himself having any power to help or to harm. Instead, he sees things from the perspective that God's government is perpetually intact. I don't believe in a God who creates a universe that keeps falling out of alignment and subsequently has to find the right politician to fix it. That is a poor estimate of Omniscience. I believe each and every one of us, politicians included, are always right where we need to be in this divine adventure called life. We are each learning more about the realities of life, learning to love our neighbors better, and being who we were made to be more fearlessly, each and every day. I believe that I found the career I'm in by the grace of God, and so I similarly believe the President (as well as former presidents) have been led into their positions because God has ordained them. This does not put them on a pedestal, but instead recongizes that we each have a God-given purpose and place in life, no more or less needed than another's.

To view any person as having a special power or authority exclusive to only them, idolizes them as a god. But to fear and condemn them, hanging onto every word they say, idolizes them as a demon. Both perspectives are ultimately dissatisfying. So I say let's take people off these pedestals, and look less to people but more to ideas. Ideas don't belong to a political party. And most importantly of all, let's continually watch that we are practicing the Golden Rule in our lives and in our thoughts about others. Would you want hoards of people comparing you to Hilter because of a policy suggestion? Or would you want hoards of people displaying captioned pictures of you to show off how righteous and perfect and better than others you are? The Golden Rule is always sound advice.

Casting the Beam out of Political Discourse

I don't participate in a lot of political discussions. But I do like to stay informed on current events (often through the Christian Science Monitor), and over the last couple of months I've seen an increased number of political discussions taking place on Facebook. Often these political "discussions" end up being entirely one-sided, or if someone does work up the courage to express an opposing viewpoint, it's quickly cut up into little pieces by an army of defensive friends. And this takes place on both "sides" of the political spectrum.

Frankly, a lot of the issues themselves don't really concern me. Or at least, they don't concern me nearly as much as the thoughts and behaviors of my friends who are expressing them. I already know where I stand on many political issues, and honestly... no Facebook status message (even one in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS!) is likely ever going to change another's viewpoint, when that viewpoint is already shaped by experience. But the political issues we so vehemently debate rarely touch on the real issues that people care about, deep in their hearts. Politics are often used as a filter, or a mask, for the underlying fears and frustrations that we face. So even after someone debates the popular issues until they're blue in the face, they're still left with the same lingering concerns about life and the future. Those concerns are what I try to discern, and what really matter.

Through this filter of politics, I have observed the following three qualities seep through most frequently, each of which I want to address separately:

  1. Self-righteousness
  2. Idol worship
  3. Intense fear

I'm only going to touch on the first one in today's blog post, namely "self-righteousness." What's the first thing you think of when you hear "self-righteousness"? Do you think of someone else, someone who has acted in a self-righteous or judgmental way toward you, or others? Maybe it's not even a specific person, but a hazy archetype that you've conceived in your head? Well, I've found it's been more helpful to check my own behaviors first, before condemning the behaviors of others. This isn't a new idea either. Here's a quote from Jesus:

How can you say to your brother, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.

When I speak of "self-righteousness," I urge you to first examine yourself and no one else. This is what Jesus taught and practiced. Are you a self-righteous person? "No." Well if you say "no," do you really believe anyone else would respond to that question saying, "oh yes, that's me"? Few people ever truly think of themselves as being self-righteous. Yet we observe the phenomena anyway. So rather than focusing on correcting everyone else, start by watching for it in your own thinking.

If someone else has expressed a dissenting opinion, ask yourself: have I honestly been willing to listen to them? Or have I judged them to be a "hater," or "ignorant", or any other dismissive adjective? People sometimes believe that our politics will ultimately determine our legacy. They think that if we're just on the "right side" of things, we'll be remembered as loving and righteous. No, no, no! Be loving right now. How you treat others -- especially those who disagree with you -- says a lot more for how you'll be remembered. That doesn't mean you have to acquiesce to an opinion you don't agree with. But just because you don't agree with someone doesn't mean you can't have a civil conversation with them. And it certainly doesn't mean you can't still love them!

Jesus taught that to mistreat or malign the "least" of people was to mistreat and malign himself. But when he spoke of the "least of them," he spoke in relative terms. In other words, you don't get to pick who the "least of them" are in advance. The "least" are whoever comes into your experience, not only the predetermined social groups that you already love to defend. Ask yourself: am I equally willing to see, and defend, the divinity within those that I disagree with?

And you know, you're going to fail at this. I've failed at it before, and I'm sure I'll fail at it again. But that is where grace comes in, to rescue us. People have an innate desire to love and to forgive; it is hard-wired in the very fabric of our being. So what if you were dismissed or alienated in a political discussion? Be willing to forgive and forget, however many times it takes. What if you were the one who made someone else feel alienated or unwelcome, and you're just now realizing it? Well hopefully you can actually see that (which is a huge step!), and then trust God to present an opportunity for reconciliation, an opportunity for grace. When you see something in yourself that is in error, acknowledge it as wrong, learn from it so that you don't do it again, and then forgive yourself and move on.

This may make for some rather messy discussions. But I know that God doesn't care about what political party you voted for, or whether two people have differing opinions on taxes and gun control. He cares about what's in your heart, and how we treat others along the way. To close, here is an excerpt from The Master's Men by William Barclay, without further comment:

The constitution of the twelve [apostles] presents us with a situation which is nothing less than a miracle in personal relationships. Within that society there was Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot -- Matthew who had accepted the political situation, and who was profitably engaged in help to administer it, and Simon who would have assassinated any Roman whom he could reach and would have plunged a dagger into any Jew who dared to cooperate with the Romans.

The plain truth is that, if Simon had met Matthew under any other circumstances, he would have murdered him. [...] Here is one of the greatest of all examples of personal enmity destroyed by common love of Christ.

Gratitude and Spaghetti Sauce

When I got home from work, I was already feeling pretty "grey." I'm not quite sure what it was, but there seemed to be this fog, this mental haziness, that was pulling me down. I was fighting it. At the same time, I was in a hurry to make dinner as I have band practice at 7:00 on Tuesday evenings, which doesn't leave a whole lot of time for preparing and eating a meal. I decided on spaghetti as my quick and easy solution. There was an open jar of spaghetti sauce in the fridge with just enough left for one person, plus I was sure there was another, unopened jar somewhere in the kitchen. I had seen it just the other day.

As I was pulling out the noodles, my roommate arrived home, so I asked if he'd like some spaghetti too. He happily agreed. I got the water boiling, he went upstairs, and I started searching the kitchen for that stray jar of spaghetti sauce. I looked and looked. I opened every single cupboard, every single cabinet, every single drawer. I stood on chairs to get better vantage points. I double checked. I triple checked. I did find a tiny, 8 oz. can of store-brand tomato sauce, but I was looking for the 45 oz. jar of spaghetti sauce, loaded full of meat and vegetables. I just knew I had seen it!

"Wait!" I stopped myself. I knew how to handle this; I could pray. God was there. I stopped frantically looking around, sat down, and started to pray. "Father, I can't find this spaghetti sauce for the life of me. I promised my roommate I would make him spaghetti but there isn't enough here for the both of us. Please help!" I declared this was a right, honest activity, so God would help me. A lot of familiar Bible stories came to mind, like the one about the woman who poured out jars of oil and they miraculously just kept pouring, and the one about how Jesus fed thousands of people with only a handful of bread and fish. I had no confidence whatsoever that anything quite so miraculous could happen to me, but I was hopeful that I would at least hear some intuition that would tell me to look in a spot I hadn't already checked.

The trouble was, as far as I knew, there weren't any spots left. I had already "left no stone unturned." So I wanted divine assistance. And in my heart, it was more than just about finding a jar of spaghetti sauce. What I was really yearning for was to feel closer to God, because frankly He felt leagues away. To me, that jar of spaghetti sauce represented an acknowledgment that I wasn't trudging through life alone, that I hadn't been forsaken, and that I wasn't stuck. I didn't want to come up with any ideas of my own; I wanted it to be unmistakeably coming from God. But I didn't hear any answers. And then the water boiled over.

I went back to my own flustered reasoning. "I could have sworn I had another jar of spaghetti sauce!" "Did my roommate use it up?" "Did I throw it out?" I realized that I could try to make do with the 8 oz. jar of tomato sauce, but it probably still wouldn't be enough. Plus, that didn't feel like a "divine solution" to me, that felt like a makeshift, last-ditch effort I had come up with on my own to get this to work. But it was all that I had and the clock was ticking. I scraped out the first jar of spaghetti sauce using a spatula. Then I opened up the tiny jar of tomato sauce and added it to the mix. It surprised me. 8 ounces was a lot more than I had thought! As I mixed it together, I realized it was going to be just the right amount after all.

Dinner was lovely, albeit quick. But it wasn't until after dinner when it finally hit me: my prayer had already been answered before I ever sat down and folded my hands. I had just been refusing to accept that answer. I never found that extra jar of spaghetti sauce like I had hoped, but all of my needs were met and I was able to keep the promise I had made to my roommate. It didn't seem as great and wonderful as my original plan, but it was still wholesome. I realized that my error had been my attempt to be the author of this story, rather than a character in God's story. Characters don't get to write the ending of the story. They just have to humbly accept what the author has already written.

I pray a lot. I know plenty about Scripture and plenty about prayer. But tonight's experience made me ask myself, "Am I really grateful for all the good I have already received?" It's not the first time I've heard that wake-up call. When I first noticed that "tiny" jar of plain, store-brand tomato sauce, I dismissed it with scorn. And that is actually a really useful metaphor, I think. Didn't the early Jews do exactly the same thing to Jesus? They were searching and searching and searching for the promised Messiah. They knew plenty about Scripture and plenty about prayer, too. They had been raised on the stories of a mighty warrior king riding in to finally defeat the Roman empire and bring them into a prosperous kingdom of glory and abundance. In a sense, they were waiting for that 45 oz. jar of chunky, meaty spaghetti sauce. So when the son of a carpenter showed up, saddled on a donkey, they were less than impressed. That was just like the pathetic 8 oz. can of tomato sauce. How could that ever be enough?

I'm taking this experience tonight as a helpful reminder that sometimes the answer we're looking for is already right in front of our faces, but it's our own stubbornness that prevents us from seeing that. I've already had moments of desperation where I've cried out to God in prayer, looking for some sort of acknowledgment, and have gotten it in pretty remarkable ways. I'll have to save some of those stories, perhaps, for another day. Tonight I didn't get quite the same treatment, but I did get exactly what I needed to hear: a reminder that everything I need is already at hand, and it will be enough. It may not seem all that glamorous, but at the end of the day, it is nourishing and wholesome. I was left with two questions, so I leave you, dear reader, with the same two questions. Are we honestly grateful for everything we already we have on hand? And are we recognizing the solutions that may already be staring us in the face, or are we being stubborn?

Parking Lot Patience

A few weeks ago, I was driving to the mall over my lunch break. I had hoped the drive would be quick; I wanted to get in, buy some lunch, and get out quickly. But it wasn't turning out that way. The mall was PACKED that day. Usually it's a little busier around noon on work days, but this day it was tenfold so. Every parking spot was filled, cars were parked illegally off to the side, I even saw cars zooming down the lanes the wrong way just to snatch up the spot of an exiting patron. I drove around in circles for awhile, increasingly agitated.

As I became more frustrated with the situation, I suddenly realized what was going on. I had been praying all along, without even realizing it! Yes, praying. My "prayer" probably went something like this: "I'm in a rush and I deserve a parking spot; I wish a parking spot would open up right now!!!"

Why do I call that a "prayer"? Because of John 11:42. Right before Jesus performs a miracle, he addresses God, saying, "I know You always hear me. But I have said this for the people standing here, so they may believe..." That reassures me that God is always listening, to every word, every thought, every tear, every moment of frustration, every desire in our heart... everything you or I have ever thought of or felt, whether you believe in God or not. He's that close! (I should qualify that statement by saying He hears every real thought, but that's another discussion entirely.)

So yes, the frustration that was brimming silently was, effectively, my "prayer" in that moment. I never said it was a very good prayer! In fact, most of the other drivers in that parking lot were probably also praying a variation on the same thing. But the prayer which says "I deserve a parking spot!" also inadvertently says "I deserve a parking spot more than anybody else here." And that's rather unrighteous and selfish, wouldn't you agree? That's not so much about honoring God, as it's about honoring me, me, me.

So I realized that I needed to change my prayer. I needed to put God into the equation. I decided, "okay God, I know You are patient, so I'm going to focus on being patient, too." Then I stopped my car - stopped frantically driving around in search of a spot - and just waited. No one was immediately behind me. I let go of the stress and frustration I had been feeling, and just focused on being patient. Within 30 seconds, a car right in front of me that I hadn't noticed pulled out, opening up a spot for me.

We have a choice, when confronted with stressful situations, whether we want to look at things like they're a human competition, or whether we want to take a moment to consciously pray. In this moment, my prayer went from being an unconscious, selfish prayer to a conscious prayer that only wanted to be more Christlike, to some degree. This kind of conscious choice to act more Christlike, moment by moment, is more important than merely getting what we want. And rather than feeling like we are burdened with having to do everything ourselves, having to win a human competition, it becomes easier to recognize how God is able to, and does, answer our prayers. Try it!

The Cross: Finding Balance

This is the last post in my three-part mini-series on the cross. In my first post I talked about how it is necessary to express the "horizontal" aspect of the cross by staying connected with the people around you. Then in my last post I talked about how it is equally necessary to express the "vertical" aspect of the cross by spending alone time with God each and every day, cultivating a deeper sense of spirituality. Today I want to talk about how it is important to keep these two dimensions in balance with each other.

What does an out of balance cross look like? On the one hand, someone who has neglected the horizontal aspect will probably look like a bit of a recluse, whether they acknowledge that or not. They might cultivate two different identities: the face they can put on around church friends, and the face they can put on around everyone else. I feel like this has described me on more than one occassion! So I don't mean to point fingers by writing this, but I do mean to stimulate a healthy sense of self-examination.

Jesus did not cultivate his own deeper sense of spirituality and oneness with the Father only to hide it behind closed doors and keep it to himself. Nor did St. Paul wait until he had all of his ducks lined up in a row before he started boldly preaching the gospel and healing others. Christianity exists to be a positive influence in the world, to make waves in an ocean of suffering and selfishness. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of my church, once wrote, "sea captains on shore are of no use." Too much focus on the transcendental without the balance of the human side of things can breed self-righteousness and hypocrisy, or it can just be a mask to hide our own fears of actually living the things we like to talk about.

Stepping out of ones comfort zone is never easy. Jesus said, "Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world." The newborn child that he speaks of there is a great metaphor for your own life purpose. The downward tendencies of the world would try to miscarry your life purpose. But we each have to rouse ourselves from the sleepy or frightened tendencies to hide away from the world. We need to get out there and shine. Just this morning a friend asked me, "are you being an influence in the world, or are you letting the world influence you?" This is a question we should all be asking ourselves every day. And in order to be an influence for others, you actually have to talk to them.

On the flip side, the cross might also be out of balance if someone has neglected the vertical. That kind of individual goes with the flow and is more interested in "keeping the peace" than making waves that might offend somebody (unless those waves try to justify a pet sin). Jesus gave two great commandments: to love God supremely, and to love others as we love ourselves. But the order of those two commandments matters! We need to put God first, before people. When we're more interested in pleasing others (or ourselves) than we are pleasing God, this also diminishes our own life purpose - or confuses it. That could include idolizing someone as a source of happiness, like a lover for instance. Or it could mean idolizing someone as a source of unhappiness, like a hated politician.

A neglect of the "divinity" aspect of the cross also tends to shut down our natural, childlike willingness to be corrected. It shuts off healthy self-examination and stifles our spiritual progress, defending this stagnation in the name of "compassion." Mary Baker Eddy also wrote, "One thing all must do - watch, and if anything looks like leaning away from God, drop it instantly." How willing are we to let go, instantly, of anything that would hinder our own progress, whether that's a questionable relationship, or another drink, or even long-cherished patterns of thinking? I realize that's a tall order. But at the end of the day, are those things really drawing us closer to God? Do they really leave us feeling more fulfilled?

Here are some questions to consider together as we enter this new year and try to find a more balanced sense of the cross:

  • Do I have two identities, or one? Do I hide one of them from society?
  • Am I afraid of bringing God into the conversation? Why?
  • When's the last time I influenced someone in a conversation in a meaningful way?
  • What is my life purpose? Does that purpose serve God more than it serves me?
  • Who or what am I making gods out of? Who am I making devils out of?
  • How much time do I honestly spend in prayer each day? Are my prayers effective?
  • Have I actually read the Bible? Do I actually know what it is I claim to believe in?

I challenge you to take each of these questions as they apply to yourself, not as a tool for correcting others. It's not our province to work out someone else's salvation, only our own.

The Cross: Speaking with Authority

Yesterday I wrote the first of three posts about the two-dimensionality of the cross, wherein I addressed the "horizontal" aspect of deliberately staying connected with ones community. Today I want to talk about the "vertical" dimension, sometimes called the transcendental aspect, of the cross. This aspect of the cross represents ones individual relationship with God, illustrated in the imagery of a vertical line going up from earth to heaven.

Jesus instructed his followers that, "when you pray, enter into your closet and lock your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret." That "closet" he spoke of signifies a quiet sanctuary away from the noise and distractions of the world. It signifies cultivating an active sense of peace, communing with the Father. That quiet time doesn't necessarily have to take place at home, alone, at a prescribed and regimented time of day, necessarily. It can happen right in the middle of a loud situation - and I'll give an example of that in a moment. But even though it can take place amid the fast-paced hustle and bustle of the world, the hard truth is that it probably won't take place there unless you first take a lot of time out of your scheulde at home, alone, to commune with God, in preparation.

Christianity is simple, but it is not superficial. I confess that I struggle with this self-discipline that I'm writing about. But I can see what great value there is in disciplining myself to reserve time out of my day to sit quietly and pray. There is Biblical authority behind it. St. Paul taught to "pray without ceasing." St. Peter was miraculously released from prison after his church members had "prayed without ceasing" on his behalf. And there are many instances where Jesus retreated from the crowds into the wilderness, or to a mountaintop (he liked mountains), to be alone and to pray. For all the time that Jesus spent among the people, he also spent remarkable amounts of time alone, silently communing with God.

But as promised, here's an example of a person entering that "prayer closet" right in the midst of a screamingly loud situation. The following is an excerpt from an article in the Christian Science Sentinel.

As I was walking to my bus stop, I heard shouting break through the pre-dawn stillness. I then saw a fellow commuter yelling at the bus driver at the top of his lungs. This bus had not showed up on time the day before, and its absence had evidently caused this man to be late for his job. Both he and I boarded the bus, where he continued loudly to berate the driver and the entire bus system, much to the shock of the other passengers. My first response was compassion for the driver, who had not even been on duty the day before. Then I felt compassion for the commuter, who I happened to know was a professional engineer and was facing family stresses at home.

In reaching out to God for inspiration that would reveal His peace for everyone, I was led to say a few calming words to the commuter. The next few moments were filled with a profound silence. The man's face relaxed, he leaned back into his seat, and the tension on the bus disappeared. Some minutes later, I heard this man quietly utter the same words I had said. He left the bus offering a polite comment to the driver, who in turn replied pleasantly.

Stories like that inspire me. I'm not sure I would have handled the situation as well as he did! But the first question that always comes to mind when I read stories like that is: how did he do that? And how can I do that? I don't believe it's merely a matter of finding the magic words to say; it's something deeper than that. What that article doesn't touch on is all the hours of daily mental preparation, daily prayer, that came before this story ever happened. That part of the story is seldom included by the time articles go to print, but that part of the story is what really counts.

I work in I.T. And as a result, I get to field a lot of I.T.-related questions, both on and off the job. Oftentimes I'm faced with familiar problems, variations on problems I've dealt with before, and so when I'm asked those kind of questions, I already know exactly how to respond. I can speak with authority in those situations. Other times, I am presented with problems I've never seen or thought of before, so I search Google for answers - and pretty reliably, I find them! As I'm searching, I can kind of feign a sense of authority in my voice, which transforms into a true sense of authority when I do find the solution. But once in awhile, I encounter a problem with no apparent solution in sight. When that happens, I have to hunker down and use my knowledge and deductive skills to try and find the answer myself. And any feigned sense of authority has to drop away to the honest admission, "I don't know, but I'm going to try to figure it out."

When Jesus spoke to disease, he spoke with authority. When his disciples similarly spoke (while they were still learning), they often were a bit more reserved, as if they were doing Google searches for the answers and hoping for the best. Jesus expected that they would eventually do the same works he did, and apprenticed them by having them attempt the same kinds of works he was doing. But early on, they sometimes fell flat. The best example of this is from the ninth chapter of Mark, when Jesus healed the epileptic boy. The father of this epileptic child had asked the disciples if they would heal his son, and they tried! But despite their best efforts, they failed. So then this desperate father turned to Jesus, hoping that Jesus would have the answer, which of course he did. Afterwards the disciples asked Jesus why they weren't able to do it, and Jesus explained the situation to them, speaking as though he knew exactly what the problem was that the disciples weren't yet able to perceive. Jesus' knowledge of what was really going on beneath the surface allowed him to cut through the disease and get right down to healing the young boy, while the disciples were simply doing their best to Google for answers, in a sense, and this was a case where there weren't any easy answers to be found.

People crave real solutions. When the father of the epileptic boy saw that the disciples weren't able to answer his cry for help, he went to their boss, who immediately spoke to him with authority. People crave that kind of authority, which is able to command the situation rather than scrambling for answers without any certainty of success. Jesus promised that his followers would be able to do all the things he could do, and indeed handle other situations that he hadn't faced, when he said, "greater works than these shall [you] do; because I go unto my Father." We also need to "go unto our Father" if we want expect to follow in his footsteps, meaning we need to make room for God in our lives. That means setting aside chunks of time during the day for silent prayer, going to church regularly, and setting aside time (outside of prayer time!) to study the Scriptures. Quiet and consistent preparation is key to being able to handle the challenges that come up in our daily lives - both expected and unexpected. In today's caffeinated, multi-tasking, constantly distracted world, it can be difficult to maintain the discipline to consistently make God a priority. Belive me, I know!

That is the vertical dimension of the cross, and it is requisite for Christian discipleship. Without that dimension, there is no authority behind what we say. We end up speaking either in clichéd platitudes, or in vague and empty promises. It is the quiet time spent alone with God where we really learn how to speak with authority, and how to bring an active sense of peace to situations. Without that genuine committment, we end up throwing darts at a board, smattering people with our uninformed best efforts, while we Google for answers. To truly follow Christ, we need to "leave all for Christ." And that starts gradually, by "leaving some for Christ" - giving at least part of our day to honest prayer.

The Cross: Staying Connected

This post will be the first of a three-part mini-series on the Cross as a symbol of faith. Ever since I first heard a talk about it this summer at the Midwest Bible Conference, I've been stewing over this idea of the symbol of the cross expressed in our lives. By that I am referring to the fact that the cross has both a "vertical" dimension and a "horizontal" dimension to it. The vertical is sometimes called the transcendental, and represents our individual relationship to God. The horizontal, or human dimension, represents our relationship with our community, and indeed with all of humanity. Both dimensions need to be deliberate and need to be in balance with each other, and there is no promise that will always be easy or comfortable.

In this post I want to focus specifically on the horizontal dimension of staying connected with others. Why is it important for us to connect with others? Others can be discouraging and sometimes outright mean. And often there seem to be invisible social barriers that prevent us from truly fitting in with certain social groups. No matter how we try, it seems like there just isn't room for us. So why try at all? Why not just hide away and cultivate a sense of peace for ourselves?

These are questions I've had on my mind for awhile. I confess that, as an introverted person by nature, it's quite easy to just want to squirrel away and insulate myself from the world. But I've been learning, sometimes slowly, of the necessity of family, of community, and of fellowship and communion with others. Jesus said, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." He never promised that the spirit of Christ would be witnessed alone in a vacuum. The operative words there are "two" and "three," signifying community.

Just last night, upon arriving home from work, I had a lot I wanted to get done. I know how to keep myself busy; I make checklists of tasks that I need to accomplish. But then I remembered a Christmas hymn sing taking place downtown, at another church I don't belong to, but that I was invited to attend. This presented a dilemma, because taking the time to drive all the way downtown would mean I wouldn't be getting my individual task list done that night. So I had a mini-debate in my mind whether I should go.

"I could get so much accomplished if I stayed home."
"I can accomplish those same things this weekend."
"Will I really accomplish those things this weekend?"
"Friendship is important."

I went back and forth for a little while. But then I started to analyze how much my "Marthan" task list was really just an excuse to avoid being social. And I realized, it was! And as I was already thinking about this topic of the cross, I eventually acknowledged how important it was that I go, even if that meant none of my task list would be accomplished last night.

I'm sure glad I did go. The hymn sing was gorgeous. I am not a very strong singer myself, but just being in the presence of so many voices coming together in unison has a power behind it. There were many in that room that I would have disagreements with, if I really got down to nitty gritty details of theology. But none of that matters when you come together to worship and praise. Human arguments disappear, at least temporarily, into the peace and goosebump-inducing calm of singing together in a church.

Earlier this summer I was struck by a comment made to a friend of mine. She is someone who is a very hard-working and committed person by nature, someone who is a "giver." She is so often giving to others, and especially to her church, that I worry that sometimes things have felt out of balance for her, like she hasn't been able to receive as much as she's given out. The comment that I overheard made to her, that so struck me was this: "You can let church be a support for you, you know." This resonates with me because so many people often take the approach that it is their own personal responsibility to support their family, their church, and the whole world. And when they inevitably fall short of being able to do that, people sometimes retreat into fear and solitude.

I came across a beautiful article awhile ago, titled Lessons on the dance floor, where this exact sort of thing happened to a young man while at a holiday camp. He felt many compounded fears of rejection and experienced a great deal of discouragement. But even after he retreated, he heard a "still, small voice" calling him back. Perhaps the most beautiful part of the piece is the message this young man heard as an answer to his prayer, a gentle nudging from God telling him, "It's time to dance. Go, go..."

There is much discord in this world that tries to separate us and have us to throw up our hands in defeat. The sting of discouragement impels us to hide away in a hole. And when we're really honest, we realize that sometimes we ourselves have been guilty of isolating or even ostracizing others. But love does not thrive in a vacuum, and I agree that the horizontal dimension of the cross must be deliberate. We need to stay connected with each other if we want to see the spirit of Christ manifest. That sometimes involves overcoming our own fears and excuses to join in the hymn sing or on the dance floor. Other times, that involves being patient and understanding with others lest we become guilty of isolating them. I've found it helpful to remember, particularly when a person seems fixated on something we may not agree with, Jesus' admonition that "he that is not against us is on our part."

At the end of the day, you matter, and others matter too. God loved you enough to create you, and he continues to love you enough to sustain you. And what's true for you is true for others as well. This line, from a poem written by Mary Baker Eddy, sums it up well, I think:

Love wipes your tears all away,
And will lift the shade of gloom,
And for you make radiant room
Midst the glories of one endless day.

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